Ratatouille, for Real

The straight dish on this elegant entrée

Urban Renewal

by Gay Lyons

Up until a few months ago, if you had Googled â“ratatouille,â” you'd have discovered recipes and probably a debate about the way Julia Child recommended cooking ratatouille as opposed to the way everyone else does it. These days Googling â“ratatouilleâ” leads you to websites related to the animated film Ratatouille , the tale of a French rat with culinary aspirations and a seemingly insurmountable problem: Who wants a rat in a kitchen? The film sounds charming, and I'm glad more people will be introduced to this dish, but if the only ratatouille you know is the ratatouille from the movie, then you don't know beans about ratatouille.

Apparently, traditional ratatouille, a mélange of eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, onions and peppers, was not photogenic enoughâ"not even with the magic of today's animation techniques. So the dish in the movie is actually Confit Byaldi, a recipe developed by Thomas Keller of The French Laundry. For those who are not foodies, The French Laundry is not a place to wash your clothes; it's an award-winning Napa Valley restaurant. Confit Byaldi is a very photogenic dish, composed of overlapping vegetables arranged in a spiral shape. Because it's baked, the vegetables retain their shapes, and because it's layered, the dish has dramatic elevation. It's served in wedges drizzled with vinaigrette. The movie version of ratatouille is also pronounced slightly differently: with more emphasis on the first syllable in order to heighten the connection between the rat and his critically acclaimed recipe.

I look forward to trying Confit Byaldi, but Iâ‘m also fond of plain old ratatouilleâ"as cooked by Julia Child and as cooked by everyone else. The difference between the two types of ratatouille is in the cooking methodâ"or more precisely the point at which the various ingredients are introduced to each other. It's useful to think of it as the multi-pot method versus the one-pot method. Here's what Julia Child, master of the multi-pot method, has to say:

When a ratatouille is made as it should be, it is a casserole of cooked vegetables in which each of them retains its shape and its own special character. Therefore, the eggplant and the zucchini are sautéed separately; the onions, peppers and tomatoes are also cooked apart, and then everything is combined for a brief communal simmer.

You've got to love someone who uses a phrase like â“brief communal simmer.â” I love and respect Julia Child, one of my earliest inspirations as a cook, and I have made ratatouille her way. It's good, but I tend to agree with Diana Shaw, author of The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook, who admits this opinion will get you in trouble with the â“food authoritiesâ”:

It [Julia Child's method] is a method I would recommend only to die-hard procrastinators looking for something to do for the sake of putting off doing something else.

If you're not afraid the food police will knock down your door and slap you with spatulas, here is Shaw's one-pot recipe:

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Peel two eggplants, slice into one-fourth inch rounds and sprinkle with salt in a paper-towel-lined colander, rinsing after 30 minutes. Bake eggplant slices on a baking sheet 10 minutes; turn and bake five more minutes on other side. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add two sliced onions and four crushed garlic cloves. Reduce heat to medium and sauté, stirring occasionally, about 12 minutes. Stir in one roasted, peeled, sliced red pepper and one roasted, peeled, sliced yellow pepper, drained eggplant slices, six medium tomatoes (peeled, seeded, chopped) and bouquet garni (fresh basil, oregano and thyme wrapped in cheesecloth). Cook at a gentle simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes. Stir in two zucchini, sliced into half-inch thick rounds, and cook until tenderâ"about three minutes. Remove bouquet garni, add salt and pepper to taste and serve warm, at room temperature or chilled.

One of the most unusual versions of ratatouille, from Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian , is a combination of eggplant, quinces, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, dried apricots and pitted prunes, a ratatouille so unratatouille-like that Jaffrey puts the word ratatouille in quotation marks in the title: Persian Sweet-and-Sour â“Ratatouilleâ” of Fruit and Vegetables. Most ratatouille recipes are vegetarian, but I have a recipe for chicken ratatouille I've been making for 30 years:

Cook two cups cubed boneless skinless chicken breast in olive oil in a large pot until white and tender. Add three cloves minced garlic, one peeled, cubed eggplant, one diced onion, two zucchini (cut in chunks), and four peeled, quartered tomatoes and cook, stirring, until vegetables are slightly tender. Add a fourth cup chicken or vegetable broth, two tablespoons fresh chopped parsley, one tablespoon fresh chopped basil, two teaspoons dried oregano, one teaspoon dried tarragon and salt and pepper to taste. Stir and simmer for about 30 minutes.

Ratatouille has as much to do with rats as cats have to do with catsup, but if the movie encourages people to try ratatouille (or the more glamorous Confit Byaldi), I'll give it two thumbs up.


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